Searching for next Seinfeld

Casting director Penny Perry was recently auditioning actors for an HBO project, when one began to spin out of control.

"He picked me up and started slamming me against the wall," she says. None of her assistants knew what to do, Ms. Perry says with a rueful laugh, "because it was in the context of the scene." He finally put her down and explained that he was using it to prepare for the role, which he saw as "Christlike."

Perry is one of the hundreds of Hollywood casting directors whose shows (if not personal safety) have recently been on the firing line. Over the past four days, TV network executives have been in New York with advertisers, pitching their hottest prospects for the fall season. These shows have been cast by directors like Perry over the past four months.

CDs, as they are known, have a critical job that is seen by millions but recognized by few: Find the next Jennifer Aniston or Jerry Seinfeld.

Pilot season is their worst time. "It's war," says Megan McConnell, who along with her partner, Janet Gilmore, has cast some of TV's top shows, such as "Alias," "The Practice," and "Boston Public." "It's just one big race," she says. "It's the most challenging time of the year because we're all fighting for the same talent."

The hottest question on everyone's mind, especially the actors', is: What do the casting directors look for?

"We're all looking for lightning in a bottle," says Dava Waite, another casting director who has cast shows such as "Yes, Dear" and "Coach."

That can translate into spunkiness, humor, sex appeal, vitality - the list is long, and the answer is elusive enough that most casting directors can agree on only one thing. They know it when they see it. Often, they find it in the most unexpected places.

"That's the fun part of the job," says Deb Manwiller, who cast "24" and "Chicago Hope." "You start to think about people everywhere, like walking through the mall. You just stare at people, because your mind is set to a different wavelength."

"I'll stop people on the street," says Sharon Klein, senior vice president of casting for 20th Century Fox TV.

She points to actor Luis Guzman, with whom she says her studio has a development deal.

"He was a guidance counselor, and he was just out on the street. A casting director said to him, 'You have to be an actor,' and that's how he got started."

Ms. McConnell adds, referring to her partner, "Janet does a lot of casting at [the grocery store] Trader Joe's."

The hard part begins once word of a project gets out. The casting directors are hired by the networks to find talent. That means winnowing through thousands of hopefuls, who contact them by phone and mail or through their agents.

"I get hundreds of those little postcards actors send every week," says Perry, almost too many to glance at.

"I would have to guess that I have around 10,000 faces in my head," McConnell says.

Everyone says they have a different system for keeping track of talent.

"I might have been in Ohio and just seen someone in a play," says Ms. Gilmore, who will remember them and file them away for future reference. Theater credits resonate strongly with Gilmore and her partner, who say they keep an eye out for regional theater credits on the thousands of unsolicited head shots and résumés that pour through her office.

"We keep those behind our desk, just noting that these are people we want to meet," she says.

She and McConnell respond well to those kinds of credits even if newcomers appear with no representation. "These are people who've just come to town with nothing but theater credits and can't get an agent," she says.

After the first cut, casting directors bring their top picks in for auditions with the show's writer or producer.

"When you're dealing with a writer, they have an image in their head or a gut feeling that's impossible to express." Gilmore says, adding that often they have to keep bringing possibilities in until the writer "hears a voice he's comfortable writing for."

But there are times when the casting director sticks to his or her vision. "That's what our job really is, to push and push," says Ms. Klein. "You walk in, and they have such specific views of what they're looking for - it's our job to change that."

"Sometimes they just need to be convinced," says McConnell. One example, says Gilmore, was when the two were working on "Boston Public," and the writer didn't see the role for the African-American actor that the two wanted.

"We stuffed Chi McBride down [David] Kelley's throat," says Gilmore.

On-screen diversity is an area in which networks have come under fire. Casting directors play a big role in expanding the possibilities for writers and producers to consider actors of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

"It's our job to go out there and dig," says Eileen Mack Knight ("Bernie Mac," "Mad About You"). "Sometimes you have to go out and hold a day of general auditions with all ethnicities to see if there's anyone out there I haven't yet seen."

Networks are sensitive to this issue, says Klein. "No network is going to let you go through a casting session without a diverse cast."

Because many of the lead roles are precast by writers or producers, the smaller roles offer directors an opportunity to be creative, especially when it comes to diversity.

"Supporting characters are where you get to play," says Ms. Waite. "You go over to [the theater called] The Groundlings, and you can have some real fun," using new talent, she adds.

Even when a casting director gets to cast a plum lead role, it's a negotiation. "It has to be a big enough name to sell," Perry says.

She says one of her biggest challenges is getting new faces seen. "It's always a process of fighting to get [producers] to take a chance," she says.

But Perry, who has worked on movies as well as TV, can proudly rattle off a laundry list of industry stars who got their first union job through her.

"I cast Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Kojak,' " says Perry.

Like many casting directors, Perry has a background in acting. This understanding helps her bring out the best in young performers, who are often terrified by what Perry calls "a hectic and dehumanizing audition process."

"My advice to actors is to ask questions, and if you want to try it again with a different take, go ahead," she says, adding, "someone without the acting training might not understand how differently a scene can be played."

At the end of the process, casting directors understand that the networks make the final decisions. But for some, the search is the reward as well as part of the job. "The only way you get kudos is to discover someone new," says Waite.

As for the actor who had Perry pinned up against the wall, not surprisingly, she says, "He didn't get the job."

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